Music

Singing the Virginia Blues: An Interview with Gio Washington

Washington's album Son of Pain is a lost treasure of R&B; an album rich in bluesy Southern drawls, honeyed harmonies and street-smart rhythms.

Son of Pain wasn't Governor Washington's first musical statement but it was certainly his boldest. In 2000, the R&B singer recorded and released a low-key album called Another State of Mind, a roughly mixed collection of soulful R&B that only hinted at the remarkable talent that lay beneath the minimalist production. The Virginia-born Governor, now recording as Gio Washington, took stock of his career, then started hauling business toward a more suitable niche for his skills. It took a few years and a little help from some notable names, but 2006's Son of Pain revealed an artist who should have been cresting on the R&B charts where so many lesser competitors held reign. An album rife with deep bluesy soul, Son of Pain touched upon a variety of styles within urban music, hip-hop in particular. But until then, it would take some time to develop a musical platform that would accommodate his Southern blues roots.

"My first real recording experience happened in Long Island at a studio called the Music Palace," the singer says. "It was like a dream come true to me. This was the first state-of-the-art studio I had ever experienced. I had no idea of what a 'floating floor' was and had never seen a U87 recording mic. The vocal booth was actually built inside of a vault and it was my first time ever using a SSL mixing board. I couldn't believe how I sounded – it was so awesome! My first official album was called Another State of Mind but my very first release was a song called "Feel tha Flow". It was a hypnotic banger in which we used a Marvin Gaye sample. How fitting and surreal! I can remember stressing my mind out worrying if Nona Gaye (Marvin's daughter) was going to approve of me using the sample. I was so scared of being denied. After all, her father was one of the best singers that have ever done it. Needless to say, it was approved. In my mind, I was on my way."

Another State of Mind, independently released, offered listeners only a glimpse of Washington's abilities. Many of the songs featured pleasant enough melodies and skillful harmonies, but they were buried under a production that couldn't securely support the songwriting. Tracks like "Pop a Bottle" pointed the way toward the more expansive numbers that would eventually appear on his follow up. His eventual alliances with artists like T.I., 50 Cent and Dr. Dre were the result of a number of industry connections that came about around the time Washington was beginning his career.

"One of my most memorable moments writing Son of Pain was with Dr. Dre," Washington says. "The first time we met was in his studio in L.A. Dre played some of his tracks for me, asking me which ones I would like to write to. He pulled out this Mason jar filled with some of the best bud I'd ever seen! After we talked for a while and inhaled, he sat there as he watched and listened to me do my thing. I could see he was vibing, hard.

"He is a legend to me, so to gain his stamp of approval was by far huge! His tracks seemed as if they spoke to me and literally told me what to write. It was incredible. So, after about four hours and three songs written and recorded, I went upstairs to find him knocked out on his couch. He never left that session until around six that morning. That meant a lot to me. I just knew my career was taking off, starting right then and there."

Son of Pain was released on 50 Cent's G-Note Records label, a subsidiary of the rapper's G-Unit Records, and ensured Washington a wider legion of listeners. Hearing Son of Pain, one gets the impression of all the influences that the singer grew up with, which included Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin. Many of the album's numbers plumb the rich soil of old-fashioned Rhythm and Blues; the cool, lush and earthy feel of that soulful loam runs deep. "Blood, Sweat and Tears", the album's leading single draws a lyric of hard self-sacrifice over a left-right-left march of delta blues. Washington doesn't espouse the ideologies of high-life living – he details the hardships of an honest day's work. You can also hear this life of ups and downs in his voice, which is unvarnished and full of natural sugar; it soars high on the whim of a breath and then dips low like a seabird clipping the coast. There is also a molasses-thick reworking of Donny Hathaway's "I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know" (re-titled here as "Never Wanna Leave") which remains at once faithful and fresh. Here, Washington redirects all of Hathaway's soulful crooning into a rush of bluesy drawls, lathering the track in honeyed harmonies.

And then there is the hip-hop influence on the album, which gives the album's its bottom-heavy resonance. In lieu of the glossy, satin-sheeted pop that infuses much of contemporary R&B, Son of Pain opts for the 808 boom of huge basslines and beats. "Be Yourself", a punched-up groove of synthesized strings and growling electronic bass, lurches heavily with the swagger of hip-hop attitudinizing. An even heftier dynamic is explored on "You Got the Power", featuring rapper T.I. Over a timpani-struck groove, Washington unleashes a stun-gunning vocal of uninhibited efficacy and strength. Rounding out the album are sweetly lacquered tunes like "Move Easy" and "Slow Down", dangerously inviting numbers which burn like firecrackers wrapped in marzipan.

"The sound of Son of Pain was gritty and organic," the singer explains of the album's designs. "I wanted to bring some soul to R&B. R. Kelly was killing them at the time with R&B that was written with a hip-hop cadence and some really basic melodies. I wanted to bring more creativity and individuality to the music. I wanted people to know that it was OK to feel, think and represent themselves all on their own. I wanted them to know that the fad of wearing throw back jerseys was cool but it was cool to rock a button up every once in a while too.

"It took about five years or so to release Son of Pain and the single 'Blood, Sweat and Tears' was about five years old when we released it. I met 50 Cent when I was dealing with [production team] Trackmasters. 50 at that time had already released "Power of a Dollar" and was recovering from being shot. I remember him walking up and down the streets of NYC with a bullet proof vest on, way back then. I could be wrong but I think was actually illegal to wear one!

"I recorded many songs with 50 – I think I may have been the first real singer on a 50 Cent song. After spending time with 50, I noticed that we had many things in common, from both of our mothers being dead to the way we thought about music at the time. We both were innovative with our styles compared to what was going in music at that time. Singers were strictly crooning love-making tunes at that time and I wanted to bring more of an edgy essence to R&B due to my affiliations with street life. I was no stranger to the streets and the streets were no stranger to me."

Son of Pain received positive reviews, but the press coverage was minimal and the album got lost in the shuffle of chart-toppers and heavy-rotators. Washington was eventually dropped from his major-label after some years. It was an unfortunate miss, one that cost the singer another opportunity to showcase his talents and to develop before a wide-ranging audience. The setback was heartbreaking but it didn't deter the singer from venturing further.

His material in the following years since Son of Pain has pushed boundaries. Later compositions reveal an artist who has sought inspiration outside of the R&B format while still keeping true to his roots. One-off numbers like the falsetto-ringing "All Night Long" channel '80s Prince through some electro-funked trip-hop. And the skewed doo-wop of "Let's Get Stoned", another one-off recording, plays classic Motown blues for retro-chic soul. Washington has also managed to record a few mixtapes as well as an EP entitled Out Here, a bassy, electronica-influenced R&B effort that flirts with some risqué lyrics. Out Here's first single, "Annie", cleverly re-envisions Michael Jackson's "Smooth Criminal" as a menacing strobe-lighted floor-thumper. The EP also features simply piano balladry ("Anymore") and some rock-inspired R&B (the title-track) amongst booming, hip-hop-leaning numbers like "Next To Me" and "Here We Go Again". Out Here was recorded under 50 Cent's supervision but the enormous soulful explosions on these recordings are entirely the result Washington's very own songwriting.

"Out Here was an effort to conform to the radio format and play the game but still be real to my artistry," Washington admits. "Out Here was the album released under 50 Cent's watch after he decided I should record on my own. At first, we were doing an album called Black Magic. That was the album that the song 'Annie' [which was featured on the very first episode of 50 Cent's TV series Power] came from. 50 told me one day outside of rehearsal that he took another song from that effort called 'Here We Go Again' to radio. We did a video for that song too. He said the feedback he got from radio was that they liked the song but it had too much of him on it and not enough of me. It was supposed to be my song but he actually had more time on the song than I did. So, I couldn't understand why we just didn't edit the song and put it out!"

The singer continues to write and record, even if the wide-reaching platform he once enjoyed with the industry head-honchos is no longer available. Washington persists in making lateral moves, honing and developing his brand of R&B for his dedicated following. An old soul, Washington is a modern day songwriter whose body is possessed by a ghost of Motown's past; his voice remains his greatest attribute. He is also a victim of cruel circumstance. The singer was dealt yet another hard blow when, in 2015, his life hung in the balance following a near fatal car accident.

"I was in a horrific car accident that could have claimed my life a while back," he says. "I was thrown from my convertible when my brakes failed making a turn. I landed on my face! I suffered broken ribs, a collapsed lung and a ruptured spleen. That same weekend, I had planned to go back to California and had decided that I was going to do something drastic to get my music where it should be. I've heard and have seen how many have sold their souls for fame and fortune.

"I was at a crossroad as to what to do and was willing to entertain some type of compromise. That accident came at a time in my life when I was at my lowest point and I saw everything clearly. Yes, I did songs with many well-known artists. But during the time of the accident, none of them called to see if I would make it through. It was a wake-up call and to this day I spend most of my time encouraging others not to give up on their dreams no matter how many weeds they have to cut through to finally be able to see the green grass on their side!"

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